Updated: Jan 3
A fantastic day at the Montebello fish hatchery
During a recent trout-stocking excursion, a fellow participant suggested I volunteer for a day at a Virginia state hatchery. I thought that it sounded pretty interesting, so I reached out to the Montebello Fish Hatchery, which presents itself on the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) website as a tourist attraction in western Nelson County on the eastern fringe of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The email response from hatchery manager Lowell (L.E.) Humphreys was very welcoming and he promised a busy day of feeding fish, cleaning screens and loading the stocking truck, among other tasks.
So I scheduled my visit for a weekday in mid-January and kept my fingers crossed that the weather would cooperate (which it did, complete with bluebird skies and unseasonably mild temps). I showed up at 7am and was greeted warmly by L.E. and his fish culturists, Darren and Richard.
My first reaction was that I expected the facility to be bigger (I don’t know why, but I just did). No wonder - I had chosen to visit the smallest facility in the State. Add to that, Montebello isn’t even a hatchery; it’s actually termed a ‘cultural station’. The facility does not ‘hatch’ fish from eggs, but instead receives juvenile fish (‘fry’) from the Wytheville and Paint Branch hatcheries.
The Montebello cultural station serves as a nursery and rears some 90,000 fish annually. Three species of trout are raised here – rainbows, browns and brookies – in a one-lane ‘raceway’ that is spring fed, acting like a flume cascading water from one ‘culture tank’ to the next. Screens between the tanks catch debris and help oxygenate the water. Fish are segregated by species and size to prevent cannibalization and create a pecking order towards stocking size.
The rearing process begins with the fry delivery in February. Most of these fish will be targeted for the fall season, although some, like the browns, will be held over until the following spring because their growth tends to lag behind the other two species. A typical fish ready for stocking measures 10” and generally weighs a half-pound.
The day of my visit began with preparing the stocking truck for a trip. Two culture tanks had already been identified and, as is the custom, those fish had not been fed for two days in advance of the stocking. I suppose trout travel better on an empty stomach! That day the two culturists, Darren and Richard, would drive 300 pounds of fish to an urban pond in Lynchburg. The staff at Montebello undertakes virtually all of their own stocking and log some 17,000 miles in the process. As hatchery manager L.E. remarked, they see more of the State as a result of the stocking than they would ever get to see on their own time.
After the stocking truck departed, we began the process of feeding the fish. To say the fish sense when it is feeding time is an understatement. As the truck moved along the raceway, the vibration of the vehicle was like a Pavlovian trigger sending the fish into a frenzy of anticipation! While spraying the pools with feed, I learned that rearing fish is a resource intensive exercise. Montebello dispenses about 64,000 pounds of feed annually to produce 60,000 pounds of fish, resulting in over 110,000 fish being stocked over the course of the year.
Following the feeding were the slightly more arduous tasks of relocating fish and cleaning the screens separating the culture tanks, which also involved the cheerless prospect of retrieving and disposing of expired fish. I guess it is to be expected that a few of the 100,000 or so fish at the facility will be lost during the rearing process. Bacteria and disease can contribute to this, as do predators, such as heron, eagles and river otters.
The day was full of activity and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, due in great part to the staff at Montebello making me feel so welcome. I encourage my blog readers to consider volunteering to help the DWR with its stocking program. Who knows, besides being fun, you may even get insight into what type of flies will work for stocked fish shortly after being introduced into the wild!
This was strictly a volunteer initiative. I am not being compensated for my mention of the DWR or the Montebello cultural station.